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Why promote equal opportunities

Anne Freese

Position: Gender Equality and Diversity Actor

Discipline: Science Management

Area of work: Administration

Website: View here

Further reading:

Article on Anne’s career path after studying gender studies
Article on becoming a mother during the Corona pandemic

Photo: Marta Meyer

Photo of Anne Freese

1. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?

My background is in modern and contemporary history and gender studies. After finishing my PhD in history, I decided to stay loyal to my scientific curiosity and the academic world.

I started working as a gender consultant in the Office of the Central Women’s Representative at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. My job there was to advise HU research groups on DFG equal opportunities funding and equal opportunities measures. The METIS project, which I very much enjoyed coordinating, was born of the equal opportunities work I did together with a number of research alliances. Eventually I also started working on a research project about the history of forensic psychology at Humboldt-Universität in the GDR as a freelance historian. And in the last few years, I’ve also established myself as a trainer for gender awareness, diversity and anti-discrimination workshops.

It’s hard to say exactly how I ended up at this combination of equal opportunities work, research, and education. Being open to new, potentially enriching topics helped, as well the choice to keep working in and around research, without following the predefined academic career path. Last but not least I had to convince myself to step into roles that I wouldn’t have thought myself capable of before.

2. When did you first become aware of the role of gender in your research environment or at your work place at university?

I’ve been working on the topic of gender and other dimensions of discrimination since the start of my bachelor’s in gender studies, so my awareness started with my entrance into the academic system. And then came my experience studying in two departments with very different academic cultures: history, which is steeped in tradition and can be very conservative, and gender studies, with its very diverse and politically engaged student body.

Specifically, what stuck with me from my experience in history was a very male-coded way of presenting oneself: the attempt to make a good impression by displaying one’s accumulated knowledge, linguistic finesse, and intellectual dexterity, with the goal of winning acceptance and recognition from a highly competitive community and surviving high-pressure selection processes. I never felt comfortable in this culture with its lack of solidarity and deforming effects on the subject.

3. What challenges have you encountered in academia regarding equal opportunities?

As an equal opportunities actor and researcher at heart, I still wonder why I didn’t try to become a professor. What discouraged me were the male networks that make or break careers, the treatment of researchers as never-tiring machines, the predefined career path, and the statistically rather unlikely chances of getting a professorship. So, the workplace culture in research was the biggest obstacle I faced in terms of equal opportunities.

Ever since I became aware of this, I’ve worked with allies in the area of gender equality to transform the academic system in small but continuous steps. The expectations for aspiring researchers today are shaped by an academic system that has historically been oriented towards wealthy, white men who did not take on any care work in their families.

In the short time that I’ve been working as a trainer for gender sensitisation and anti-discrimination, I’ve met a surprising number of women who transitioned into science management after their PhD or at the latest after their first postdoc position. Their reasons were all similar: the academic system’s misogyny and incompatibility with raising a family, its intense atmosphere of competition, its demand for geographic flexibility, and its endless working hours. But I’m no longer ready to write off these reasons as risk aversion, reluctance to get competitive, or a lack of self-confidence on the part of women. I know from experience that that’s not the case. Instead, it’s a prime example of the exclusionary nature of academia: Researchers who don’t fit into this very narrowly conceived profile get left out. I wonder how many alternative discoveries, experiments, and inventions humanity has missed out on by excluding these people.

4. Do you have any personal experience with equal opportunities offers? What did you take away from them?

I understand equal opportunities offers as any events, programmes, workshops, or tools that have the goal of increasing gender equality and equality for other marginalised groups. Personally, as a student and a doctoral candidate, I took part in a women’s mentoring programme organised by the Divida foundation. I benefited a lot from the programme – among other things, it encouraged me to pursue a PhD. At events and workshops, the personal testimonials and individual empowerment strategies of women have left the strongest impression on me.

I’m also familiar with equal opportunities offers from the perspective of the organiser, and know how hard it is to measure their effects. As a trainer in particular, I’ve experienced controversies surrounding gender equality and witnessed various strategies for deflection, poorly conducted debates, and unreflective opinions. But I’ve also met many (often young) people interested in the topic, who are disturbed by the current circumstances and want to see a change in the academic system.

5. What do you think still needs to be done?

Academia urgently needs to change and open its gates to reflect the diversity of our society. There are already a number of developments in this direction which demonstrate: We need alternative role models in academia and also alternative ways of thinking, in order to break the patterns of misogyny, classism, racism, ableism, and other exclusionary mechanisms in research. We need more inclusive networks and decisions based on quality and not on connections. We need academic careers with part-time positions, and an end to unlimited working hours. We need more quality instead of quantity in research output, and more self reflection and awareness of the particularity of our own position. We need a diversity of career paths in research and more appreciation for work experience outside of academia. We need more predictability for research careers and more permanent positions that aren’t professorships. We need stable funding for research and more reasonable requirements for flexibility. In any case, we can’t let ourselves be satisfied with the status quo, because it doesn’t do justice to all of us.

© GeCo | 2021